I saw a movie called Harry Brown last night, starring Michael Caine as genteel English retiree and former Marine Harry Brown who takes up arms against a sea of gangsters who are terrorizing the housing projects in which he lives. While Caine has received accolades for the role, it was clear to me after seeing the film that the filmmakers included Caine as a way of getting the film made and distributed, and then used the opportunity to make the best movie they possibly could around him. The denizens of the gangster underworld that Caine breaches on his errand are the true pleasure here: they are gritty and real, but the filmmaker imbues them with an otherworldly hue at times that gives the film resonance beyond its immediate sociopolitical context. When the hooligans set fire to something at the entrance to the apartment of Brown’s best friend, the sequence is shot in a way that evokes an evil that is erupting into a pervasive and suffocating presence.
Caine himself is remarkably lackluster, and much of the opening 10 minutes of the film are painfully dull as a result. I attended the film with a filmmaker friend of mine who was inclined to the lay the responsibility for this dullness on the script, but I believe that had Caine found a deeper, visceral connection to the griefs and fears weighing on Brown at the outset (the impending death of his hospitalized, comatose wife, the loneliness he is facing, and decline of his surroundings), these sequences might have been more compelling.
Intellectually, the film does not ultimately cohere: it raises the specter of the necessity for vigilantes without providing any meaningful answer to the problem. Nevertheless, I give the filmmakers props for their achievement: they made a significant compromise in using Caine (it is clear to me from the quality of nearly everything else in the movie that they could not have seen it any other way), presumably in order to overcome various logistical hurdles of production, but still told a vivid and harrowing story. This is director Daniel Barber’s first feature, and is an extremely auspicious debut.